Although some may assume that corruption is gender-neutral in terms of its lack of ethics and resource-depleting impact, corruption compounds the discrimination women already experience on large and small scales.
By Masum Momaya
Defined as “an inducement to do wrong by improper or unlawful means,” corruption exists on all scales – through bribes exchanging hands in interpersonal transactions, through leaking local and national coffers and through transnational deals made outside of, or in spite of, regulatory mechanisms and oversight.
While some may assume that corruption is gender-neutral in terms of lack of ethics and resource-depleting impact, research shows that corruption compounds discrimination already experienced by women and other marginalized groups. Generally, this compounding occurs as women attempt to take part in decision-making processes, seek provision of and protection for their rights and gain control over resources.
Largely due to their social roles as caretakers, many women may be familiar with petty corruption – the kind that forces them to pay bribes for things like accessing utilities, securing school enrollment for their children, obtaining a driver’s permit or business license, taking out a loan or getting medicines or an examination by a doctor. Add a layer of corruption to gender-based discrimination, and these routine transactions become difficult.
In such situations, poor women often cannot pay bribes and some are forced to pay with sexual services or find a male patron to secure basic rights and services.
Similarly, corruption at the macro-level in the political arena, in public sector contracting, in transnational business transactions and in development aid processes also compounds discrimination women already face in these spheres.
Corruption in the Political Arena
Worldwide, women are underrepresented as voters and candidates in elections. In the histories of most nations, women were legally prevented from casting ballots or standing as candidates. Today, even though these laws have been repealed almost everywhere, women still face barriers in politics due to corruption.
In the absence of strong campaign finance laws or oversight, many candidates receive money from sources that are corrupt or potentially corrupt. Not only are the sources of funding not often disclosed but sitting public officials, the majority of which are men, sometimes abuse government resources like office space, materials, phone and internet access and voter lists in their campaign operations.
Since women are less likely to be tapped into the ‘old boys network’ when they stand as candidates, they have a marked disadvantage against those with money and access.
Similarly, candidates with access to money and power can bribe voters directly with food, cash and clothing – or threaten to withhold basic services if people do not vote for them. In Mexico, for example, voters testified that they had been “threatened with the withdrawal of subsidies under the state poverty-alleviation programme, Progresa, if they voted for the opposition.”
Many voters also face electoral fraud and vote stuffing when they go to the polls. For instance, in the 2008 national elections in Pakistan, due to power imbalances within the home, men were able to take the identity cards of their female relatives, dress up in burqas, and go to the polling stations to cast extra votes as women. Party-affiliated workers working in concert with these voters oversaw the stations, and they did nothing to prevent or rectify this fraud.
In Kenya, political candidates like Green Belt Movement leader Wangari Maathai have provided a counterexample to this ‘business as usual’ in politics by building a strong grassroots base of mainly women voters and small donors to succeed in elections.
Corruption, however, is not just confined to elections. The ongoing presence and strength of lobbyists ensures that those with the ability to offer money and gifts gain privileged access and undue influence on policymakers.
Also, once in power, high-level politicians, most of whom are men, often experience immunity from persecution and enjoy immense personal power. For example, many heads of state have not been adequately tried and prosecuted for their part in war crimes, including the use of rape as a weapon of war.
On a day-to-day level, many high-level leaders also cannot be held accountable for their lack of delivering basic goods and services like food, water, electricity and medicine to their citizens. Here, with little access of channels of accountability alongside growing burdens as caretakers, women bear the brunt of providing for such goods and services when governments or their contracted suppliers fail to deliver.
Corruption in Public Sector Contracting
According to Transparency International, a global coalition against corruption, “on average, approximately 70% of central government expenditure turns in one-way or another into contracts. Contracts are sources of power to those who give them out, and targets of ambition for those who may receive them, making [them] particularly prone to abuse at the expense of public need.”
Moreover, “public contracting is one way in which public policy is implemented, and it is an enormous and lucrative area of business. Think of pharmaceutical companies vying to supply a government vaccination program, the privatization of a government-owned telecommunications company, or the awarding of contracts to reconstruct destroyed infrastructure in Iraq.” 
Most of the awarding of contracts takes place through the informal meeting spaces of the old boys network rather than open and fair bidding processes. Women who, in addition to being shut out of these networks, have a hard time obtaining credit and licenses to start and grow businesses are rarely contenders for these contracts.
Meanwhile, since genuine efforts to serve the public interest and provide accessible, affordable services are often not the foremost criteria for awarding contracts, public funds are misused, fair competition is distorted, and basic needs are neglected.
Again, women are often forced to compensate with their time and labor. For example, when private sector leaders with relationships to public officials were brought in to manage water distribution in places like Bolivia and South Africa, water was either not delivered or distributed at exorbitant costs. In addition to mobilizing to resist this, women had to find other means to get water and ward off ensuing health and sanitation challenges due to lack of clean, potable water.
Corruption in Transnational Business Transactions
Until the recent formulation and adoption of the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention in 1999, not only was it legal for companies to pay bribes to foreign public officials to secure contracts, they received tax breaks from their home governments for doing so. Today this is illegal, but the process of prosecution is so expensive and cumbersome that such bribery continues, often through the smokescreen of intermediaries.
The arms trade and energy sector are particularly vulnerable to this form of corruption. Due to its clandestine nature, it has been difficult to hold companies responsible for illegally selling arms to public officials, and the flood of arms into many countries has increased civilian violence and overall militarism, in which women and children are often victimized.
In the energy sector, as poor countries discover oil or gas reserves, the proceeds often seep into pockets of public officials and intermediary deal brokers. Artificially high prices for fuel are set, and this, in turn, also inflates costs of fuel-dependent goods such as food. As women are most often the ones to compensate for changes in the cost of living, the burden of corruption’s effects bear down on them.
Corruption in Development Aid
Similarly, development aid can fuel corruption. Civil society organizations in countries with weak governance and large influxes of aid have warned that foreign assistance can sometimes present perverse incentives to invest in sectors and projects not prioritized by the receiving governments. Aid can also distort salary structures and create opportunities for corruption by the private sector in countries where regulatory mechanisms are weak.
Gender-differentiated impacts also ensue. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s, donor countries and agencies, and their private sector subsidiaries, including pharmaceutical companies, largely managed population control projects in the developing world. Sterilization and largely untested contraceptives were the primary means used to control population growth - in contrast to investment in sexual and reproductive health education and comprehensive services that accounted for the socioeconomic realities of women’s lives. In some cases, relatively weak governments were unable to push back on such policies whereas in other cases, public officials in receiving countries were fully cooperative, pocketing some of the aid and profit for themselves.
Nevertheless, aid can also serve as an anti-corruption force – not through conditionalities – but by building strong transparency, accountability and regulatory systems. Implementing such an agenda takes foresight, skill and cooperation on the part of both donors and recipients and some international donors are taking active steps to implement anti-corruption measures.
Changing, Not Playing, the Game
In the end, regardless of the spheres in which corruption occurs, in order for women, other marginalized groups and ordinary citizens to not be multiply disadvantaged, nepotism, bribery, the undue influence of special interests and illegal, unethical dealings must be uprooted. Simultaneously, women and all other groups need more access to information. In many cases, women do have rights but are not aware of them or how to exercise them. In such cases, corrupt decision-makers are not challenged. Overall, the goal is not that more people enter the networks where corruption takes place so that they can ‘play the game’ but rather to change the rules of the game such that corruption doesn’t consume and monopolize resources that need to reach and benefit people.
 Bandarage, Asoka. Women, Population and the Global Crisis: A Political Analysis. London: Zed Books, 1997.